Party Like It’s 1898!
The day Prince died I had just arrived in San Francisco (fashionably late, of course) for Kuwentuhan (Talkstory), a project conceived and curated by the poet Barbara Jane Reyes, who co-produced it with The Poetry Center. Wheeling my roller bag into the Manilatown Heritage Foundation, I greeted my fellow Kuwentuhan poets with the news of Prince’s passing, which I had just read about on my phone. Lucky for me, not only were the other poets welcoming of my bad form, they were also Prince fans, and so we spent the next few days writing, sharing our work, hanging out, and doing a number of public readings and performances, all of which seemed to incorporate some kind of reference or tribute to the late, great Purple One. My own contribution consisted of a ditty called “Kuwentuhan, Kuwentuhan,” sung to the tune of “Purple Rain,” and belted out on Market Street over a smartphone karaoke beat, to the perplexity of passersby and the occasional distracted driver.
Looking back on how much fun I had at Kuwentuhan, and how close I felt to my fellow poets, I realized we were all working in one way or another on decolonial poetics, and we were also all in some sense children of 1898. With roots and routes in the Philippines (Reyes, Arlene Biala, Angela Narciso Torres, Aimee Suzara), Guahån [Guam] (Lehua M. Taitano), and Puerto Rico (myself), most of us are poets whose islands were “ceded” to the U.S. by Spain as part of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, which put an end to the Spanish-American War. (See articles II and III in particular.) The odd poet out here would seem to be Javier O. Huerta, who is Chicano/Mexican American, but Huerta’s poetic exploration of immigration, citizenship, and (affective) translocal economies in books such as American Copia: An Immigrant Epic (2012) is also a reminder that, as Daniel Margolies notes, the border with Mexico has functioned as a “sovereign exception,” allowing the U.S. “to reshape legal spatiality unilaterally.”
Margolies suggests that the 19th-century borderlands are essential to understanding “the formal and informal imperial systems established after 1898,” including in small places like The Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Such exceptions are not so exceptional, and in fact we can revisit U.S. history through what Giorgio Agamben calls states of exception, where the state claims special powers in “emergency situations,” especially states of war. Agamben observes that the metaphor of war (e.g. the War on Drugs, the domestic War on Terror) becomes central to the exercise of power over the course of the twentieth century and beyond.
As I’m writing this in the wake of the deadly police shooting of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed Black man, it’s hard not to think of these states of exception as they buttress what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor calls “The Double Standard of Justice” in her important book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (2016). Taylor maps this double standard across U.S. history, noting that in 1898 “almost 73 percent of total revenue in Alabama was derived from convict leasing in coal mines.” Crucially, Taylor analyzes the intersections of racism and capitalism, and highlights those moments when the racial logic of the corporate state is laid bare as affording opportunities for a new movement of (anti-racist and working-class) liberation.
What interests me here is examining those moments when poems lay bare the claims of power, and when they harness an alternate power from seemingly exceptional or invisible places, the small places of poetry, if you will. Below are some riffs on Kuwentuhan poets and other recent “1898” poetics that harness that alternate power. I’m including poets with roots in/routes through Cuba (in article I of the Treaty of Paris, Spain “relinquishes all claim of sovereignty over and title to Cuba”) as well as Hawaiʻi, which the U.S. “annexed” through the Newlands Resolution of 1898, over vociferous opposition from the native population. In keeping with my previous posts, I’m including ten entries, but in the spirit of Kuwentuhan I’m also working a Prince reference into each entry.
Arlene Biala. “Tell Me Again.” Verde Que Te Quiero Verde: Poems after Federico Garcia Lorca. Open Country Press, 2016.
Biala, author of the American Book Award-winning her beckoning hands (2014), juxtaposes Lorca’s image of a “decaying mouth [that] goes on begging for water” with the children of Flint, Michigan, and comes up with a haunting denunciation as Lorca would’ve wished: “their bones the roots of poisoned hours.” This poem understands Lorca as a poet of invocation (duende and all), and in that sense it claims Lorca for the counter-history of transoceanic offerings in her beckoning hands. In my reading, the children’s laughter near the end of the poem embodies the courage of those who dare to party even while living in the shadows of empire, where 2016 might as well be 1898. In a sign o’ our times, Biala’s poetry celebrates those who still want 2 fly when a rocket ship explodes.
Javier O. Huerta, translator. “Act” by León Salvatierra. Poetry (July/August 2016).
Huerta’s translation of the Nicaraguan poet Salvatierra works as a (lost) love poem (“I looked for you in each seven that ciphered my life / And I found you slipping away to other numbers”) but also as a gloss on both poets’ mappings of spiritual nortes. It’s also a counterpoint to the bilingual hijinks of Huerta’s book American Copia, where immigrant supermarket ironies couch lyric vulnerability. Still, the poem’s seemingly offhand shout-out to the Nicaraguan municipality of La Paz Centro, the site of a battle during the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua, brings us back to the ways in which imperial wars helped shape the contours of our nortes. Thinking about poetic microeconomies, Salvatierra becomes complexly enmeshed in the transnational genealogy of “grocery store poets” in American Copia’s epic title poem, one that includes everyone from Elizabeth Alexander and Allen Ginsberg to Óscar Hahn, the Clash, and Reina María Rodríguez. (The previous stanza of the title poem also riffs on a memorable 2009 post on this very blog, as if putting the verse back in controversy, copia and all. Don't ya wanna play?)
Paolo Javier. Court of the Dragon. Nightboat Books, 2015.
Decolonial auto-ethnography meets process language and New York-(un)schooled romance. In these punkadelic non-sequences, “I,” “you,” and “we” blur so that lyric, exhortation, and social text/manifesto become one messy process of unwriting, one archipelagic project. How can a poet leave us standing, alone in a world so cold? The truth is as playful as it is brutal. And forget emo-globalism; 1898 poets bring their own hardcore blues: “See your boy ache like Frank O’Hara stationed in Manila.”
Brandy Nālani McDougall. Finding Meaning: Kaona and Contemporary Hawaiian Literature. University of Arizona Press, 2016.
While I was familiar with McDougall’s powerhouse book of poetry The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani Paʻakai (2008), I’m embarrassed to admit I knew little about Hawaiian literature more generally before reading this book. Finding Meaning works as a partial map of Hawaiian literature but also as a primer on literature and/as decolonization, a term many of us use in vague or careless ways, but that’s approached here through the framework of kaona (finding meaning), a simultaneously aesthetic and political imperative. Against formalist (e.g. close reading) Anglo-American approaches to literary interpretation, McDougall proposes kaona as a practice, one that is both “inclusive and exclusive” inasmuch as it allows for “recognizing various connections and associations” and for “[maintaining] outwardness with other Indigenous peoples.” Particularly illuminating in a Kuwentuhan context (“Kuwentuhan” is a Tagalog term for storytelling) is McDougall’s insistence on “mo`olelo” and “mo'oku'auhau” (Hawaiian terms that evoke history/tradition and genealogy) as central to an indigenous decolonial literature. As Reyes notes in a review of The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani Paʻakai on this blog, McDougall’s poetry seeks to reconcile a poetics of “reciprocity” with an indictment of a history of violations (of the land, of the body of the native/woman), and in that sense Finding Meaning provides a conceptual and political framework for McDougall’s own poetic project as well as the many works it analyzes. It also provides a model of critical “outwardness” that’s both an inspiration and a challenge to the rest of us who navigate the creative-critical divide. There are thieves in the temple tonight, tearing us apart, but poets/scholars such as McDougall help us hold on as best we can.
Christina Olivares. No Map of the Earth Includes Stars. Marsh Hawk Press, 2015.
White, Black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin, and this non-Cuban’s just a-groovin’ to Olivares’s syncopated dictations and lyric visions and poetic prose blocks, which redraw diasporic maps as palimpsests (as in how the poem “Palimpsest” answers its “City beckoned. To be come a new home” with “Reality laid over reality until nothing is whole any longer”). This call-and-response extends, over several poems, into a conversation with Babalú-Ayé, the Orisha (syncretized with Saint Lazarus) of the healing of the Earth. Against the legacy of 1898 and its juridical maps, where Cuba is just one more pawn of empire, Olivares offers a spiritual map attuned to “the memory of my hands moving through the carcasses of others’ prayers.”
Barbara Jane Reyes. To Love as Aswang: Songs, Fragments & Found Objects. Philippine American Writers and Artists, 2015.
The Philippine “Aswang” is described on the back cover as “a mythic, monstrous creature which has, since colonial times, been associated with female transgression, scapegoating, and social shaming,” and Reyes’s forceful work documents how “[in] the 21st century, and in diaspora, she manages to endure.” A key political move here is Reyes’s play with the words “pixilated”/”pixelated” and their variants: in one sense, the terms convey the whimsical, eccentric nature of the Aswang as trickster, but in another they refer to the commodification, violation, and struggle of Filipina/Pinay/Fil. Am. bodies in the digital age, as the poems mock and/or collage internet profiles and ads for Filipina wives or reflect on the internet avatar “Sweetie,” a computer-animated Filipina girl devised to catch sexual predators. In a broader sense, pixilation/pixelation also refers to Reyes’s experiments in diasporic digital translanguage, moving across scripts, tongues, and font colors. In the midst of so much violence, Reyes finds room to celebrate survival, with moving invocations of daughters and lists of women’s names, and even a parody of Ginsberg’s “Howl” (“I saw the best poetas of my bloodline dig into themselves, starving for / rice, scaling, treading, aging”…) that reminds us that the Aswang’s epic, unlike Ginsberg’s Whitmanesque plenitude, must be made “With nothing but songs for those in the rubble, with no home, / nothing but bodies for taking, nothing but fractures for language.” Praise to the Aswang and her fractured alphabets; she’ll take us down, down, down, if that's the only way 2 make this cruel, cruel world hear what she’s got to say.
Reina María Rodríguez. Other Letters to Milena/Otras cartas a Milena. Translated by Kristin Dykstra. University of Alabama Press, 2014.
In which one of the leading poets in Cuba (and Latin America) writes and unwrites an epic intimacy: while the title self-consciously echoes Kafka, Milena is the name of Rodríguez’s youngest daughter, who is central to the book. Luminously translated by Dykstra, Rodríguez’s prose poems/letters argue for “Surprise as a point of departure; the return to a kind of mentality in which there is no connection of any kind between an action and the objective it indicates.” This poetics of surprise is also an attempt to reimagine the city and the page, both eternally familiar and foreign to the poet: “The street-page is also like a zipper running open down the length of one’s back, out of which an imprisoned body surges, a motive for discovery.” Rodríguez’s writing names an “inner” diaspora, summoning the voice of someone at once inseparable and displaced from her own city, while evoking the affective and familial city of “Mayami” (Miami), as inner and outer diasporas blur. Given the recent “opening up” of Cuba (and Havana in particular) to U.S. interests, and the constant echoes of imperial discourse (see the Treaty of Paris’s framing of the need for the “occupation” of Cuba), Rodríguez’s book is also of a piece with the poetics/politics of counter-machination of her late friend Juan Carlos Flores. For both poets, self-identity is also urban space is also social space is also a project of poetic/political confrontation: “Identity recreates itself in a latent and semantic process: I name my street, my street contains me.” Aristocrats on a mountain climb are making money, losing time, but Rodríguez brings us back to the time of our writing and unwriting: “Watermark, useless geography of a lost coastline.”
Aimee Suzara. Souvenir. WordTech Editions, 2014.
This book never meant to cause us any pain, it only wanted one time to see us laughing. But as we might guess from its Lacan epigraph, Souvenir traffics in a jouissance that refuses to disentangle pleasure and pain. Structured as a series of “exhibits,” the book foregrounds the display of Filipino bodies at the 1904 World’s Fair, thus making us complicit with the imperial gaze, with the guilty and abject pleasure of witnessing. Incorporating found text from Gray’s Anatomy, the poem “The Heart is a Hollow” unfolds in three sections, concluding with the impossible commands “Un-traumatize. / Return the heart to its innocent state. / Reflesh the bones.” Producing “Philippine Souvenir Card”s and “Museum Note”s and list-poems of “Objects & Artifacts,” Suzara unravels the colonial fantasy of the ethnographic other as it plays out globally, undergirding the powers-that-aren’t. The (Lacanian?) real power here is language’s power to confront us with our complicity and our distance, with how we “witness the exhibit / of the exhibit.” You may think you can speak “for” or at least empathize “with” the other, but your language, Suzara insists, marks you as “sutured / to your subject.” Politics here isn’t simply about a (look-what-I-)can-do(with-)language (as with so many self-appointed “political poets”), but about writing how and where the lyric fantasy comes undone.
Lehua M. Taitano. Sonoma. Drop Leaf Press, 2016.
This new chapbook continues Taitano’s diasporic mapping of landscapes and bodyscapes. Here, the bold typewriter text-bombs and strikethroughs of 2013’s A Bell Made of Stones give way to a languid love letter to Sonoma, California, its lake, its lack, and its simultaneous familiarity and foreignness. The speaker here is “adrift” in diaspora, but also attuned to the pleasures of displacement. From a diasporic Chamorro perspective, there’s of course an irreconcilable difference between island and mainland, and between the expanses of California and the accidents of the psychic archipelago, but Taitano’s poetics works by queering that distance, by finding the homology in difference, by embracing the synaesthetic intimacies of landscape, just as she does in her short story chapbook appalachiapacific (2010). As with other Chamorro and Pacific poetics, Taitano’s work evinces a strong eco-poetic dimension, especially with regard to the intersections between environmental and colonial violence, a crucial aspect of 1898 poetics that I don’t have room to carefully consider here. A great poet once wrote, “Pardon me 4 breathing, can we borrow some of your air?” Taitano’s Sonoma unpacks the question with the exquisite flow of its breath.
Angela Narciso Torres. Blood Orange. Willow Books, 2013.
1898 called and it wants its empire back. Sorry, party over, oops, out of rhyme! I don’t know if Angela Narciso Torres was dreaming when she wrote this, but I thank her for not going 2 fast: “Imagine a ball of solid steel the size of the earth. A bird flies by and brushes its wing on / the ball’s surface once a year. When the entire ball has eroded, eternity is just beginning.” Such is the imagistic radiance of Torres’s poetry, where the Earth bleeds into the titular blood orange which bleeds into the “blood mother” whose (poet-)children live “mapping the moonlit / country of her nearness.” The return to the islands in poems such as “We Go Back to Manila in 1999” is inseparable from the untranslatability of home, and from the Kuwentuhan imperative to “unearth / the stories from which they grew.” Poets like Torres and the others featured here tell the stories from which we grow. Don’t forgo their flow! As The Artist once put it, “Now your mind is open 2 poetry seldom heard!”
I haven’t discussed Puerto Rican poets here, as I’ve done so in detail in my previous posts, but I’ll conclude with a shout-out to Pedro Pietri, whose work frequently evokes 1898, both in the spirit of resistance and as an invitation to party. Pietri’s Invisible Poetry (1979) is composed solely of blank pages and an irreverent back-cover bio that lists his birth year as 1898 (it’s actually 1943, or some say 1944). 1898 here becomes a punchline but also a complex performance of colonial visibility/invisibility. [As an aside, you’d think smart conceptualists would take seriously such a loaded instance of poetic blankness, if only to work through their own cultural politics and rebut charges of white-washed formalism.]
In any case, as I point out elsewhere, Pietri’s manifesto for the deterritorializing ElPuertoRicanEmbassy website/project, includes a utopian call for “a new 1898,” a reference to the liminal moment when Puerto Rico was “in between” colonial powers and arguably briefly autonomous. Here, claiming 1898 is an invitation to have fun with cross-media, cross-cultural, cross-border or simply cross(ed out) poetics that let us imagine new roots and routes, alternative liberated states. Two thousand one and six, rulinguistics won’t liberate, so tonight we gonna poet like it’s 1898!
- Paolo Javier
- Maria Raha
- Barbara Jane Reyes
- Andrew Motion
- Brandy Nālani McDougall
- Thomas Hardy
- Javier O. Huerta
- Kristin Dykstra
- Lisa Marie Basile
- Arlene Biala
- Whitney Joiner
- Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
- Ahoo Najafian
- Juan Carlos Flores
- Rescue Press
- Christina Olivares
- Reina María Rodríguez
- Aimee Suzara
- Lehua M. Taitano
- Angela Narciso Torres
- Rafia Zakaria
- Atiya Fyzee
- American Literary Translators Association
- Frédéric Forte
- Daniel Levin Becker
Originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Urayoán Noel is the author of the poetry collections Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico (2015), a Library Journal Top Fall Indie Poetry selection; Hi-Density Politics (2010), a National Book Critics Circle Small Press Highlights selection; Kool Logic/La Lógica Kool (2005), an El Nuevo Día Book of the...